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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 43, October 10, 2009

Subjective Obsessions diminish Quality of Historical Analysis

Sunday 11 October 2009, by K.P. Fabian



Jinnah: India-Partition Independence by Jaswant Singh; Rupa and Company, New Delhi; pages 669; Rs 695.

As I completed the enjoyable navigation through the ponderous, pompous, and pontificatory prose of Jaswant Singh, I was reminded of three other famous writers:

Oscar Wilde: The only duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.

Benedetto Croce: All historiography is contemporary historiography.

Voltaire: I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

To put the last quotation in context, Voltaire is said to have said this to Helvetius after his book De l’esprit was burned in 1759. That was 30 years before the French Revolution began. One wonders whether Gujarat under Narendra Modi is in a pre-revolutionary situation.

In any case, the rather intemperate reaction of his party to Jaswant Singh’s book shows that a good many of us in India are not historically mature. We cannot examine history in a calm, non-partisan manner. We have to deify or demonise fellow human beings. We cannot accept the partition as a historical given and move on. Benedetto Croce is right.

It is indeed amazing that Jaswant Singh and Jinnah have together caused a tsunami, yet to subside, in the Bharatiya Janata Party. Jinnah through his famous monocle contemplating Jaswant Singh’s book and its impact must be mildly amused and muttering to himself: What a fool homo indicus is! I outwitted him when I was on earth and I continue to do that from my grave. Thank you, Jaswant, as a historian, you are indeed mightier than Almighty who cannot change the past.

Given the enthusiastic reaction in Pakistan, one is reminded of the definition of a classic as a book that every one praises but few read. Let us see what the author has to say about Pakistan and Jinnah’s two-nation theory:

Mohammed Ali Jinnah was, to my mind, fundamentally in error in proposing ‘Muslims as a separate nation’, which is why he was so profoundly wrong when he simultaneously spoke of ‘lasting peace, amity and accord with India’ after the emergence of Pakistan, that simply could not be. Perhaps, late General Zia-ul- Haq was nearer reality when asked, as to ‘why Pakistan cultivated and maintained this policy of so much induced hostility towards India?’, he replied (some say apocryphically, but tellingly) that ‘Turkey or Egypt, if they stop being aggressively Muslim, they will remain exactly what they are—Turkey and Egypt. But if Pakistan does not become and remain aggressively Islamic it will become India again. Amity with India will mean getting swamped by this all enveloping embrace of India.’ This worry has haunted the psyche of all the leaders of Pakistan since 1947.

(p. 498)

The author finds that post-1947 Pakistan has been “accompanied by high drama, often troubled by dark and imaginary shadows of history, also myths”.

…There is a sad absence of cold, phlegmatic logic. Inevitably therefore, the ‘idea of Pakistan’ has often got usurped, which is why Pakistan’s friends have so often become its masters, and which is why the ‘state’ of Pakistan continues to remain fragile, so unsure, so tense ……From becoming an Islamic state, Pakistan, ultimately, again perhaps inevitably, had to become a ‘Jihadi state’ …. And epicentre of global terrorism. (p. 499)

Obviously, the question arises: why do they love Jaswant Singh in Pakistan if the creation of Pakistan was Jinnah’s error? The book jacket has at the back a picture of Jinnah sitting at the top of a map of India with a caption “Jinnah is an ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity.”—Gopal Krishna Gokhale. The intended, but unstated, implication is that Jinnah remained such an apostle, his advocacy of Pakistan was only a bargaining chip, and it is only because of the ineptitude of Nehru and Gandhi that Pakistan came into being. If that were the case, what should the Pakistanis think of Jinnah? The implication is that for Pakistan’s father her birth was an accident or an unintended aberration.


Jaswant Singh’s narration is not a study in clarity and the rare reader who makes it to the end is rather intrigued: What exactly is his thesis? But, before the reviewer makes the hazardous attempt at summing up the thesis, it is appropriate to have an overview of the book.

Jaswant starts his narration with a section captioned The Opening Pages of Indo-Islamic History.

Contrary to the generally held views, it took the Arabs several attempts, and close to four hundred years to gain a foothold in India and that too at great cost.

Jaswant poses the question: What is history, or more correctly, historiography? Herodotus called it “a systematically tested compilation of materials”. But, the author prefers Arab historian Ibn Khaldun and quotes from The Muqaddimah. “The writing of history requires numerous sources and much varied knowledge. It also requires a good speculative mind and thoroughness, which lead the historian to the truth and keeps him from slips and errors.” Jaswant is gifted with an excellent speculative mind as we shall see. But has he kept himself from “slips and errors”?

The author, in his account of the genesis of the Muslim League, starts with the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1905-06. But, the account is seriously flawed.

On 10 August, Archibold, the Viceroy’s Secretary, informed Muhsin al-Mulk that Minto would receive a ‘Muslim deputation’ and hear their grievances. (p. 48)

It is Archbold, not Archibold. The date is wrong. But, more seriously, Archbold was not Minto’s Secretary, he was the Principal of the Aligarh College. The Private Secretary to the Viceroy was Dunlop Smith. The author correctly refers to Dunlop Smith as the Private Secretary later. (p. 52) Even more seriously, the author fails to mention that it was Archbold who drafted and finalised the petition. Since new editions of the book are going to come out such errors can be corrected.

The account of the change from Jenabhai to Jinnah in 55 pages is excellent. While studying for law he sought and obtained exemption from appearing for a paper in Latin. The next chapter The Turbulent Twenties ends with a section The Parting of the Ways narrating the complex story of the rejection of Jinnah’s demands by the Congress session that met in Calcutta in December 1928. According to the author, Jinnah, bereft of any popular support at the provincial level, realised that

either (he) had to be in the Congress camp or in the Muslim camp; he simply could not be in both. It was this cruel logic and its continuous whiplash of demands which ultimately turned Jinnah into becoming the Quaid-i-Azam of Pakistan… the Congress then embarked on the dusty trails of protest and civil disobedience towards Dandi, in the footsteps of the Mahatma, the beneficiaries of the system (Muslims) rallied to the defence of the Raj and the system.

This is a more or less historically sound account of what happened. The only component that needs to be added is that once he realised that he was not destined to be the Prime Minister of undivided India, primarily owing to Gandhi’s meteoric rise and his unconcealed preference for Jawaharlal, Jinnah started looking for other options.

Chapter 4 Sharpening Focus—Narrowing Options gives one of the best accounts this reviewer has come across of the slightly acrimonious corres-pondence between Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru in 1928. Ostensibly, the contention was about the Dominion Status versus full independence, but the divide was much deeper. Nehru tells Gandhi that he “hardly agreed with anything” in Hind Swaraj and that he was “infinitely greater than your little books”.

The account of the first Round Table Conference (1930) leaves much to be desired. The Congress wanted the Conference

not to discuss by when dominion status had to be established, but to frame a scheme for the Dominion Constitution of India.

The author draws the incorrect conclusion that the Congress position was wrong and his reasons for that conclusion are far from convincing. (p.174) It passes one’s understanding how the author could have expected a Conference without the participation of the Congress to have succeeded in any measure. Sir Malcolm Hailey, the former Governor of Punjab and the United Provinces, told Irwin that “Jinnah was the perfect little bounder and as slippery as the eels which his forefathers purveyed in Bombay market”. As India marched towards independence and partition, Hailey was to prove himself right again and again, though our author does not dwell on this theme.


At the Second Round Table Conference, attended by Gandhi as the sole representative of the Congress, Aga Khan in his Ritz Hotel room chaired sessions where the participants were Gandhi, Jinnah and others. Aga Khan recalls in his memoirs that “always the argument returned to some basic points of difference: Was India a nation or two nations?” Gandhi wanted Jinnah to accept the Congress goal of ‘self-government’ as their goal. Jinnah did not agree. Further, he made it clear that he wanted a weak Centre with powers only for defence and foreign affairs; “all other powers to be transferred and especially to those provinces in which there were Muslim majorities—the Punjab, Bengal, Sind, Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier”. Instead of recognising the divide between Gandhi and Jinnah and its historical significance, the author dismisses the matter as “hair-splitting” that got “finer and finer” as time went on. This is not an instance of mature historical analysis.

Turning to the 1937 election, the author says that “Sir Harry Haig, the Governor of UP, also remained convinced that the Congress would not be able to secure more than sixty out of a total of 144 Hindu seats. In the end, in UP the Congress secured 134 out of a total of 144 seats, a clear sweep.” (p. 215) Obviously, a young reader who does not have the background would assume that there were seats reserved for Hindus. The fact of the matter is that they were ‘general’ seats, not reserved for Muslims, Sikhs, Christians or any such groups. Of course, our eminent author did not intend to mislead. We can only respectfully request him to clarify the matter in the next edition. In fact, we would have expected him to correct Sir Harry Haig.

Jaswant Singh has argued, as many others have done, that it was Jawaharlal Nehru’s attitude towards Jinnah and the Muslim League that came in the way of sharing power between the two in UP. That is correct. If Jawaharlal Nehru and the Congress had agreed to all that Jinnah wanted including the demand that no Congress Muslim be in the Cabinet, there would have been a coalition government in UP. Would that coalition government have worked smoothly? Or, would it have merely given a foretaste of another such government at the Centre as India approached independence? A good historical account should raise and answer such questions. To assume that 1937 was a watershed and if a certain course of action was then taken by Nehru the course of history would have been in an imagined direction is to commit the fallacy of contra-factualism. People who use such arguments believe that they are following Blaise Pascal who wrote: “Had Cleopatra’s nose been shorter, the whole face of the world would have changed.” Pascal merely said that the course of history would have changed, he did not specify in which particular direction the change would have occurred. The error in Jaswant’s argument is that he specifies confidently the particular direction history would have taken. This is a common error in historiography, especially in contemporary Indian historiography, for reasons not difficult to fathom.

The section titled The Second World War-The Congress-The Muslim League narrates Jinnah’s interview with Lord Linlithgow on September 4, 1939 (pp. 261-262) The Viceroy asked Jinnah

to explain a statement he had recently made in public that he no longer believed in democratic government for India. How was India to obtain self-government if not by democracy? Jinnah replied that the escape from this impasse lay in partition. This was perhaps the first occasion where Jinnah mentioned ‘partition of India’ formally. The Viceroy saw Jinnah again,just a day later, on 5 October 1939….. (emphasis added)

The reader wonders whether the author is referring to September 5 or not. That apart, Jaswant’s account is incomplete.

Jinnah told the Viceroy: Muslim areas should be separated from “Hindu India” and run by Muslims in collaboration with the British. Our author has relied on John Glendoven’s The Viceroy at Bay, Lord Linlithgow in India, 1936-1943, published in 1971. The author could have consulted more recent literature, especially Narendra Singh Sarila’s The Untold Story of Partition. The meeting was on October 5, and the Viceroy met both Gandhi and Jinnah that day.

The author gives an excellent narration of the Viceregal prodding on Jinnah to come out with the March 1940 Lahore Resolution, commonly known as the Pakistan Resolution.

It is most appropriate that the author, based on Pyarelal’s The Final Phase, gives an account of the Gandhi-Jinnah Talks of 1944. The reviewer does not propose to summarise the account for want of space. But a comment is called for on the absence of any comment from the author. Anyone reading the account will conclude that Gandhi argued his case much better than Jinnah argued his or rather, that Jinnah did not argue at all. Jinnah came out with statement after statement without adducing any proof when challenged. He refused to join the debate and resorted to repetition of assertions. In all fairness, the author should have commented that Jinnah, the “cold logician”, had lost the debate. Why did he not do it? The author is prolific with his comments on such occasions. Did his unbounded admiration for Jinnah come in the way of discharging the author’s primary responsibility to the reader?

The author is almost naïve when he shows his dismay that partition has not resolved the Hindu-Muslim divide. (p. 490) One wonders why he is puzzled. He incorrectly refers to Nehru as the principal architect of partition, in reality the draftsman. (p. 493)


The author has failed to understand how partition occurred and he has omitted significant material. He has not dealt with the crucial role played by the pre-incarnations of his ex-party. There is an incomplete reference to Lala Lajpat Rai’s thoughts on the Hindu-Muslim divide (p. 135)

This point needs some elaboration. Way back in 1925, Lala Lajpat Rai in a letter he wrote to C.R. Das said:

I had devoted most of time during the last six months to the study of Muslim history and Muslim law and I am inclined to think it(Hindu-Muslim unity) may be neither possible nor practicable. Assuming and admitting the sincerity of the Mohammedan leaders in the non-cooperation movement, I think their religion provides an effective bar to anything of the kind…What is the remedy ?I am not afraid of seven crores of Indian Musselmans but seven crores plus the armed hosts of Afghanistan and Central Asia, Arabia, Mesopotamia and Turkey will be irresistible. I do honestly and sincerely believe in the necessity and desirability of Hindu-Muslim unity; I am also fully prepared to trust the Muslim leaders, but what about the injunctions of the Quran and Hadis?

Lajpat Rai’s solution uncannily foretold the actual partition:

My suggestion is that the Punjab should be partitioned into two provinces, the Western Punjab with a large Muslim majority to be a Muslim-governed province, and the Eastern Punjab with a large Hindu-Sikh majority to be non-Muslim governed province……. Under my scheme the Muslims will have four Muslim states (1) the Pathan Province or the North West Frontier, (2) Western Punjab, (3) Sind, and (4) Eastern Bengal.

There was a triangle of forces, the British authority, the Congress, and the Muslim League. As Euclid has proved, two sides of any triangle together are longer than the third side. Since the British and Jinnah worked together for partition, the Congress was in no position to prevent it. If Jaswant Singh had consulted Sarila’s book he would have got it right.

As a matter of fact, London made its position clear by the August 14, 1940 declaration by Secretary of State Amery:

It goes without saying that they (His Majesty’s Government) could not contemplate transfer of their present responsibilities for the peace and welfare of India to any system of Government whose authority is directly denied by large and powerful elements in India’s national life. Nor could they be parties to the coercion of such elements into submission to such a Government.

In plain English, as far as Britain is concerned, if Jinnah insists he shall have Pakistan. And Jinnah insisted. The Cripps Mission (1942 March), the Simla Talks (July 1945) and the Cabinet Mission (May 1946) were theatrical pieces staged by Britain, whether under Churchill or Attlee, to project to the rest of the world that it had no option but to divide India as the Indian parties were unable to come to a settlement on power-sharing in a single state despite the best efforts by the colonial power. Jinnah knew it much better than the Congress. Jinnah and Britain demonstrated a singular consistency of purpose and determination till the end. They collaborated to a degree that the third side in the triangle did not figure out. This essential truth about the genesis of Partition is missing in Jaswant’s book. His obsession to find fault with Nehru does diminish the quality of his historical analysis. Life is lived forward, but written backwards.

Jaswant has caused a national debate and all of us who take history seriously are beholden to him. A revised edition of his book will be a valuable addition to the literature on a theme of abiding importance. We eagerly expect more books from Jaswant Singh. He has modestly claimed to be not a professional historian, but for the general public his book will be of abiding interest.

A distinguished diplomat, the reviewer is currently the President, Indo-Global Social Service Society.

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